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Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet

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A new book offers an eye-opening expose of the varied types of chicanery, fraud and misinformation that's rife on the Internet -- and what to do if you get stung by it.

"There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics." (1)

This famous aphorism, often attributed to Mark Twain, can be said another way: "Don't always believe everything you read."

This is especially true when you're searching for treasure in the world's largest "information gold mine" -- the world wide web. Sure, the web is a great source of authoritative, high quality information. But it's also littered with pages full of inaccuracies, partial truths, and outright lies. Twain again: "A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar on top." (2)

Want proof of the web's duplicity? Look no farther. The links below will take you to the web pages where I found the quotes from Twain. But there's a big problem with both quotes.

They aren't Mark Twain's words.

The "damned lies" quote comes from Twain's autobiography, but the words aren't his -- they're Twain quoting former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. And there is no record of the "gold mine" quotation in Twain's books or papers. Because Twain was such an adept quipster, he is credited for many things he didn't say, according to Twain authority Jim Zwick (3).

This highlights a key problem with the web. It's carelessly used as a primary source of information, when in fact it's more often a secondary source. Someone reads an inaccurate statement on the web, quotes it on another web page, search engines obligingly index all of the inaccurate pages, and we end up with a mess where fiction is accepted as reality.

Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet is a new book from Forbes Inc.'s Director of Knowledge Management, Anne P. Mintz. Mintz offers a marvelous expose of the multitudes of chicanery that can be found online. The book is a collection of essays from leading authorities who discuss both the social and technical reasons why inaccurate information exists on the Internet.

The extent of online deception portrayed in the book is a real eye-opener. The first chapter chronicles hoaxes, counterfeit sites, and other spurious sources of information on the Net. Succeeding chapters go into depth on medical, legal and corporate misinformation, as well as charity and e-commerce scams.

An excellent chapter by LaJean Humphries provides specific, detailed techniques for evaluating the quality of online information. Chapters by Susan Feldman and Elizabeth Liddy focus specifically on the technical aspects of search engines, and how they can be "tricked" by misinformation. Two other chapters focus on privacy issues, and what to do if you fall victim to online fraud.

Mintz clearly selected both the authors and subjects for the book with care. In less skilled hands, this book could have been nothing more than hype-ridden tome designed to scare people into buying it. Instead, the focus of the book never wavers from providing a clear-eyed, objective look at a serious problem. The goal is to inform and enlighten, and the book succeeds admirably.

Web of Deception is a must-read book for any serious searcher, not only to help protect yourself from online charlatans, but also for its excellent chapters on search engine technology. This book truly is a gold mine, because as Twain (really) said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."

Web of Deception: Misinformation on the Internet
by Anne P. Mintz
CyberAge Books - $24.95
ISBN: 0-910965-60-9

Disclosure: CyberAge Books is the publisher of my book, The Invisible web, co-authored with Gary Price. Apart from this relationship, I have no further professional connection with either CyberAge Books or with the author of Web of Deception.

(1) How to Lie with Statistics
http://www.robelle.com/smugbook/stats.html
This book review attributes Disraeli's famous quote to Mark Twain.

(2) "A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar on top"
http://wrgis.wr.usgs.gov/docs/gump/anderson/anderson.html
This inaccurate attribution to Twain appears on no less than an U.S. government web site.

(3) Misattributed Quotes: What Mark Twain Didn't Say
http://www.boondocksnet.com/twaintexts/quotes_not_twain.html
Popular quotes attributed to Mark Twain that can not be found in any of his works and are believed to be misattributed to him, from Twain scholar Jim Zwick.

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